Planet Rugby

Preview: Northampton v Leicester

15th May 2014 12:08

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England's men: Burrell and Tuilagi

Northampton will host Leicester in a sizzling East Midlands derby on Friday for the right to play in the Aviva Premiership Final.

A rematch of the last year's Twickenham showpiece which was effectively ended with red card shown to Dylan Hartley for his petulance, Northampton have regathered themselves, licked their wounds and produced a phenomenal campaign to finish ahead of their nearest and dearest in the league.

That should make them favourites, no? Except Leicester have had to battle all season with an apocalyptic injury list that might have brought other clubs to their knees and yet only finished four points behind their hosts.

For large portions of the campaign they have been without Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Anthony Allen and more, all key components to their squad. Under Ed Slater's leadership Leicester have rallied and typically as ever find themselves sitting in the playoffs, looking to make it nine consecutive Premiership finals in a row.

That would be some feat; achievable, certainly, but a mountain of an ask for Richard Cockerill and his squad considering the performances that Northampton have produced this season.

Yet with their Six Nations stars back in the fold they lost to the Tigers 16-22 back at the tail end of March, even with Leicester losing two men to the bin.

Saints fans will still be smarting with Wayne Barnes over the timekeeping controversy that saw Northampton never have the chance to go for the win with a 5m lineout, but having secured a home semi-final it doesn't matter now.

Instead there will just be that little extra fire in the belly to prove they are better than Leicester on their own turf. The reverse fixture at Welford Road ended in a 19-19 draw.

Individual moments of brilliance are more than likely to decide this one and both teams are bursting with world class players. For Northampton you have George North and Kahn Fotuali'i, two arrivals this season that have added that extra touch of class. Leicester will look to Tuilagi to continue his try-scoring run after returning from injury.

But every kickable point will be essential, which is why plenty rests on the shoulders of Stephen Myler and Toby Flood.

Friday could be Flood's final game in a Leicester shirt after a successful stint with the club before he joins Toulouse. Another title to his name would be a fitting conclusion.

Leicester welcome back six internationals to the starting line-up.

After rotating the squad for the Round 22 win over Saracens at Welford Road last weekend, Tigers are able to recall Marcos Ayerza, Jordan Crane, Vereniki Goneva, Logovi'i Mulipola, and Ben and Tom Youngs for the trip to Franklin's Gardens.

There are also places in the forward pack for captain Slater, Julian Salvi and Jamie Gibson after sitting out last week, and Dan Bowden joins Tuilagi at centre, with Flood at fly-half.

"We've come through 22 tough rounds of Aviva Premiership rugby, everyone has worked really hard, and we've shown a lot of resilience to get here. Now it comes down to 80 minutes on Friday for a place in the Final," said Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill.

For Northampton, George Pisi, Fotuali'i, Samu Manoa and Tom Wood all step up from the bench to re-join the starting 15, while Courtney Lawes and Ross McMillan both return to the match day squad after missing the Round 22 win over London Wasps.

Form: When it comes to Aviva Premiership semi-finals Leicester have played eight, won eight, though just one of those triumphs came on the road against Gloucester in 2008. Tigers have won on their last three visits to Northampton but have not won four in a row at Franklin's Gardens since the 1980s. Jim Mallinder's troops have also won four of their last five semi-finals in all competitions - and six of the last seven played on home turf.

Prediction: Make no mistake, losing Hartley to injury is a huge blow for Saints. But, at home, this is a massive test of their credentials. Fail to win this one and they will be left with more questions than answers. With no Allen and no Parling, Leicester are missing two key figures themselves. Those abscenes matter. It should be a classic. Northampton by five.

For Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kan Fotuali'i, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Phil Dowson (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Christian Day, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson

For Leicester: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Niall Morris, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Ed Slater (c), 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Logovi'i Mulipola, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Graham Kitchener, 20 Steve Mafi, 21 David Mele, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Adam Thompstone

Date: Friday, May 16
Venue: Franklin's Gardens
Kickoff: 19:45 (local, 18:45 GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Nigel Carrick, Paul Dix
TMO: Rowan Kitt

by Ben Coles

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